When Jessie Odell asked Jeb Bush to let him and his partner adopt a child 15 years ago, all he got was silence. But his pleas did no go unheard, and despite the governor’s best efforts, Odell is now a father.
His story is one of many that play out in the email exchanges between Bush and his staff—which the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting recently made searchable—and it gives an intriguing view into how the then-Florida governor struggled to explain his opposition to adoption rights for LGBT people.
It also shows that Bush and his top advisors were acutely aware of internal inconsistencies in the state’s policy on same-sex adoption and foster families.
In 1977, Florida became the only state in the country to proactively ban gays and lesbians from adopting. Thanks in part to the dogged anti-gay activism of former Miss Oklahoma Anita Bryant, the state implemented legislation saying sexual orientation alone could disqualify prospective parents from adopting.
That law faced a court challenge during Bush’s time as governor. In 2004, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against four gay men trying to overturn the law—a decision Bush applauded.
“[I]t is in the best interest of adoptive children, many of whom come from troubled and unstable backgrounds, to be placed in a home anchored both by a father and a mother,” Bush said at the time, according to the St. Petersburg Times. “Our adoption policies take that important role into account.”
In 2005, the Supreme Court refused to hear the men’s appeal. But years later, the adoption ban was finally overturned.
Bush’s email exchanges with gay constituents during the adoption fight indicate that his rhetoric on the topic was carefully crafted. And perhaps the most telling exchange is between Bush, his staffers, and Jessie Odell.
Odell, a gay man then living in Florida with his long-term partner, emailed the governor on Feb. 9 of 2000 pushing him to change his stance on adoption.
“My partner and I have been together for 11 years, our income is in the six figures, we have a very normal and stable home life,” Odell wrote. “We have a lot to offer a child, love, the finest schools, and good moral standing. I also want to know, do you all feel that we would raise our children to be gay or lesbian? Do you all think that we would molest children?”
He then appealed to the governor’s traditional values.
“I understand that the media sometimes will show only the bad side of people, such as the drag parades on gay day, and other negative things of that nature,” he continued. “Please understand that there is a whole other gay community, that the general public is unfamiliar with. My partner and I are in that community. We go to work, and pay bills just like you and your family.”
I spoke with Odell about this email, and he said he never heard back from the governor or his staff about it. But emails show that Bush wanted to respond and was ultimately persuaded against it by his aides. A day after getting the email, in fact, he forwarded it to staffers and asked them to draft a reply. Two months later, Brian Yablonski, one of Bush’s most senior advisers, emailed around a proposed response.
“While I respect the great diversity of our state, and have not been a vocal opponent of the gay and lesbian lifestyle, I am not in favor of lifting the ban on gay and lesbian adoptions,” wrote Yablonski in his suggested response for Bush.
He continued to say that placing a child in “an alternative environment, as loving it may be [sic],” would be “an additional challenge for that child to face.”
Then Yablonski suggested that the governor touch on the gay “lifestyle.”
“I do not believe it is for the state to encourage or endorse this particular lifestyle,” he wrote. “So long as it is within the bounds of the law, people may be free to do what they wish in their own private and personal affairs. However, when those activities require state approval and oversight, then that constitutes an explicit endorsement of the activity by the state. I am joined by the majority of policymakers and Floridians who do not believe it is appropriate for the state to sanction this particular lifestyle.”
Yablonski suggested they conclude the email by saying, “I am sure this is not the response that you wanted to hear, but on this matter we have difference of opinion.”
Sally Bradshaw, perhaps Bush’s most trusted aide, then weighed in on Yablonski’s proposed response.
“I am concerned about the obvious inconsistency in the fact that we allow gay couples to become foster parents, but not to adopt children,” she wrote. “Don't we?”
Bush’s reply was confused.
“I didn't think we allowed gay couples to be foster parents,” he wrote. “Or maybe it is adoption.”
Bradshaw then emailed, “Don’t you remember the info about [Kathleen Kearney, then-secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families] presenting an award to a gay couple for being stellar foster parents? That’s why this is problematic.”
Yablonski then cleared up that the state had a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy on gay foster parenting, and that as a result children were placed with gay foster parents.
And his proposed response never went out. Yablonski told the email chain that he spoken to Kearney about the issue, and that she discouraged them from replying.
“She encouraged us not to respond because there is on going litigation against the state on this matter,” he said.
And that was that. In 2011, the now-married Odell finally adopted a son who, despite Bush’s concerns, has been on Honor Roll several times this year and is “the center of our universe.”
“God really played his hand in this, because we ended up with the most perfect, most gorgeous blond-haired, blue-eyed boy you’ve ever seen and not a problem in the world, just happy to be loved and have daddies,” he said.
Odell never heard back from Bush. When I directed his attention to the emails discussing his note, he wasn’t impressed with the inner workings of Team Bush.
“I am absolutely appalled to read those ‘possible’ responses they were considering sending,” Odell told me. “Especially the one that ended in ‘I know that's not the response you wanted to hear, But...’ That is the REAL Jeb Bush right there. Typical cowboy behavior like his brother. God Help us should he win the presidency. Go Hillary!!!”
But some gay Floridians were more forgiving of Bush’s stance on adoption.
“I am a proud republican and a gay man as well,” wrote Miik Martorell on Oct. 15, 2002. “Unlike many in my community, I support the conservative agenda because I believe that being BORN THIS WAY does not make me any less of a person or any more of a person. It makes me EQUAL, just like everyone else.”
Then he raised a concern.
“I believe that making the statement that only a man and a woman must parent a child is to say the least, ignorant,” he wrote.
“What you said about gay parenting just hurts, even more because I have supported you for so long,” he continued. “I believe I could make a good parent one day and I hope that I will be able to marry the one I love before I die. I guess my only thought for you would be to take a look at people like me that support you even though they are ridiculed by their community for doing so, yet we still fight on.”
Martorell didn’t get the response he wanted, but at least he got one. The governor wrote that he opposed anti-gay discrimination and hate, but didn’t think barring gays from adopting was a type of discrimination.
“Perhaps our disagreement is that I believe that the creation of life by a husband and wife and the creation of a family from that should be something that is protected and treated differently than other family strutures [sic],” he wrote. “I don't believe that this is a discriminatory position.”
And a few days before the 2002 re-election, another gay supporter emailed Bush to express support and call for him to change his stance on adoption.
“It seems that practically all people in the gay community think that if you are gay that you must vote for the democratic candidate,” wrote Bob Fritz. “Not so. Perhaps you should rethink your position on gay adoption and perhaps there may be another issue or two that I would like to see you take a different position on, but no candidate is perfect.”
Bush’s stance on gay adoption gets less popular by the day. Talking Points Memo reported this week that, per UCLA demographer Gary Gates, gay adoption has even stronger public support than gay marriage.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Bush has softened his rhetoric on the issue. This week, the former governor alluded to the gay adoption issue in an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network.
“If we want to create a right to rise society where people—particularly children born in poverty—if we want to have them have a chance, which should be a core American value, we have to restore committed loving family life with a mom and a dad loving their children with their heart and soul,” he said.
Bush hasn’t endorsed Senator Ted Cruz’s push for a constitutional amendment to keep the federal government from overturning states’ marriage laws, and in 2012 told Charlie Rose that loving same-sex parents can be good role models. And earlier this year, he talked about his opposition to LGBT adoption in the past tense.
“Previously, I opposed gay adoption, but it has since become the law in our state, and I respect that decision,” he told Politifact in January.
For families like the Odells, that’s good news. Still, as the emails from his time as governor show, Bush’s messaging is certain to be handled carefully on LGBT issues as he struggles to court both social conservative die-hards, and a broader electorate that’s much more pro-equality than when he last ran for office.